By Tina D'Ercole

With the stroke of a pen in late 1975, President Gerald Ford changed the lives of millions of women.

The following fall, a few hundred of those women walked through the door Ford cracked open, arriving to begin their educations in the cities of West Point, New York, Annapolis, Maryland, New London, Connecticut and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

These modern pioneers—the first women to attend the United States’ military academies—faced challenges that changed their lives forever.

These are their stories.

* * *

So there we were—Induction Day 1976.

At the dinner table the first night, our squad leader asked each of us why we came to the United States Naval Academy. I was stunned to hear the answers. They ranged from a free education, to my dad promised me a car, to a desire to fly jets. I was a bit uneasy to answer, for all of a sudden, my main reason seemed a bit … different. (Just like me.) But answer I did, “to serve my country, sir.”

What values formed my foundation that at 18 years old I could answer with such conviction? I brought with me respect for my heritage. I valued commitment and witnessed the camaraderie of my parents and their friends with whom they served during their time in the military. My mother was in the 11th regiment of the WAVES—Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. My father served in the Medical Service Corps. Both were veterans of World War II and members of the American Legion. My father served 12 years active duty and 24 years in the reserves. My parents marched in the Fourth of July parade every year in our hometown for as long as my sisters and I can remember!

Over four years, the academy strengthened the values I brought with me to Annapolis.

D'Ercole on graduation day in 1980. | Photo credit Courtesy photo

At age 54, I look back and find it difficult to consider one defining moment from my time at USNA—there were many! My college years were more a confluence of experiences and lessons which I carried into my future, as I suspect was the case for everyone, academy or not.

Through our time at Annapolis, I believe the members of the class of 1980 came to appreciate our heritage. We came to understand what it meant to take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. The pressure was great on both the women and men of our class, and as such, we began as a very divided class. While those classes without women often tried to intimidate our class as a whole, we slowly took on the form of a cohesive unit.

Shortly before our senior year, the infamous article titled, “Women Can’t Fight,” by now-U.S. Senator James Webb (D-Virginia), was published. Although many jumped on the bandwagon to applaud his perspective, the members of the Class of 1980 all came to understand it was simply that—one perspective. Our class is unique and we grew to be proud of that uniqueness.

I know this to be true because at each reunion—each gathering—the comments my classmates make when reflecting on their lives and their academy experience are thoughtful—sometimes apologetic—but, most importantly, they are proud to be part of such a unique experience and class.

Oddly enough, throughout our senior year and the years following, what could have broken us as a class instead brought most of us closer together. There is no Naval Academy class for which I have more respect than the class of 1980.

Now, I look with pride on my own heritage as a member of such a unique class, and I can see the commitment of each person as I renew relationships and witness the camaraderie brought about by shared experiences. I can only hope that I pass these values to my children, for I have found that raising two independent-thinking adults is yet another way to serve my country.

Tina D'Ercole retired as a commander in the United States Navy.